“A lady named Francis came in to show me where she was when a white woman put a cigarette out on her arm,” says Tom Morales, successful restaurateur and Founder of TomKats Hospitality in Nashville, Tennessee, while attempting to convey the sense of purpose and responsibility he holds for his most recent venture — the renovated Woolworth on 5th.
“She still has the scar from it, too. But when I took her to the lunch counter and showed her around the restaurant, she was all smiles.”
Although the majority of Nashville residents likely remember the 30,000-square-foot building at 221 Fifth Ave. N. for its 20-year stretch as a Dollar General store, the space has long been packed full of chilling secrets that were not only significant to local history, but to United States Civil Rights history.
Having first parted its doors for the public as a five-and-dime department store in 1913, the Woolworth building became a hot spot for socializing. The lunch counter opened in 1925, where its bologna sandwiches and soda fountain were magnets for children, teens and young adults. But, more than 30 years later, it would become a history-making stage set for racial protest.
The Sit-ins That Launched a Civil Rights Movement
On Feb. 13, 1960, a group of African-American college students made their courageous trek through the streets of downtown Nashville, targeting two businesses: Woolworth on 5th and Kress and McClellan. Their goal was to desegregate Nashville lunch counters. They were not attempting to start a revolt with their fists, nor words shouted in angst. They merely planted their bodies into the counter seats as a request to be granted a primary right — to be served a simple meal like everyone else. It was something they demanded for themselves, as well as the generations that would follow them. But they were not granted this request. Instead, they were physically and verbally attacked, mocked, scolded, spit at and demanded to leave.
Two weeks later, the group returned — this time with 200 others marching in protest alongside them. This not only caused an outrage among the community, but led to a multitude of arrests — one of them being 20-year-old John Lewis, now Congressman and prominent Civil Rights leader — and spawned a fury of national media attention.
Morales, a Nashville native, grew up frequenting Woolworth, most often accompanying his mother on shopping expeditions as she browsed the sales racks. He laughs as he recalls having been bribed with sweet and creamy confections in exchange for good behavior. In his mind’s eye, he can still call upon a vivid image of what that space looked like in 1960. He can still smell the hot grille and taste the chocolate milkshakes he and his brothers shared at the lunch counter. “I remember being there once and asking my mother why the water fountains by the bathrooms were labeled ‘Colored’ and ‘White Only.’ I was about 6 or 7 seven years old then, and I remember it being so confusing,” says Morales.
When he stepped foot into the empty space in 2015, after having long held a desire to purchase and restore it, he was struck with the capacity of what it represented; he was standing on sacred ground.
Where History, Hospitality & Restoration Collide
Morales and his partners hurled themselves into its renovation process immediately, sensing the store’s essence was alive and ripe underneath so many years of having been covered up, though they had no inkling of how much still remained to be rediscovered.
“The Dollar General had drop ceilings, and only occupied a small amount of the building’s space. When we started the renovation, we didn’t know what we had, so we pulled the drop ceilings out, and what we saw was remarkable,” he says.
Morales recalls gazing up at the ceiling for the first time upon its removal, being riddled with chills. “We all looked up there and saw that all of the original air conditioning ducts, the railing, and all of the art deco crown molding were still there, totally intact. Then we took the air conditioners out and saw the original floors to the upstairs. We couldn’t believe it,” he says.
Its spirit had always been there, resting in waiting — as though asking to be returned to light.
“If you look at Southern history, particularly the Civil War, negative history is often covered up. People don’t want to talk about it,” says Morales. “That’s what happened with this space. But the things that happen never go away. So, in this situation, they covered it up, but we peeled it back.”
Morales and his crew saved the exposed tile that was up on the mezzanine, near where John Lewis was arrested. “People go up there and touch it,” say Morales. “Like they’re trying to connect with it.”
Perhaps as though to answer the cries of yesterday, saying, “We’re trying to make it right. Thank you for fighting so hard.”
Morales and his team were provided photographs from the Nashville Public Library, each plucked from its Civil Rights room. They studied every photograph diligently, being guided throughout the recreation of the lunch counter. Although they weren’t able to keep components of all remnants, they kept fragments of lots of things. The original crown molding was preserved and restored, as well as the display cases and terrazzo flooring.
Out of his string of successful projects parented by his company, which includes popular night spot Acme Feed & Seed, a revamping of the famous Loveless Cafe, elegant seafood-centric destination Fin & Pearl and a spread of others, Morales says Woolworth is the one that stirs him most. “From the history and from the heart, Woolworth is the most important project TomKats has ever been involved in, though it has also been the most challenging economically. We spent $6 million renovating that building, trying to just save it.”
Morales believes the process has been carried by a force of divinity. “We have a very diverse group of investors, and I’ll tell you that a lot of them probably could have invested in things that would have given them a better return. I think all of our investors were led by their hearts,” he says.
Most significantly, the restaurant opened its doors, purely by accident, during Black History Month 2018. “It wasn’t planned or organized at all, it just happened to be the time that worked out,” says Morales. “And that felt like a way the universe spoke to us. It was overwhelming.”
But, for Morales, his sense of purpose stretches deeper than the specific events that took place on that February day in 1960. It’s about paying homage to an entire era.
“Along Jefferson Street and Charlotte, in that whole area of Nashville, there was a significant African-American music scene going on there in the late 50s and early 60s. Think Jimi Hendrix. Little Richard. Charles ‘Wigg’ Walker. All of them played down there. Well, I did some work for Chet Atkins, and he used to say to me, ‘Man, we used to sneak over and play with them cats…’ Then after a hesitation, he’d say, ‘…because them cats couldn’t come over and play with us.’”
In other words, back then, the white musicians were welcome in the black clubs, but the black musicians were never welcome in the white clubs. “That always struck me and haunted me. So we knew that we wanted to do more than recreate the lunch counter. We wanted to tip our hats to the African-American community and to that whole era,” says Morales.
Food, Style & Smashing Entertainment That Pays Homage to the Past
Although the main floor serves as the primary dining quarters, the basement floor of Woolworth on 5th, once a dusty and neglected storage space, has been turned into a dashing venue called The New Era Ballroom, and is alive with the sounds of soul, R&B and big-band music every weekend. The likes of legendary soul singer Charles ‘Wigg’ Walker and iconic Gospel artist Bobby Jones pay regular visits to the venue, arousing the guests to their feet. Above the winding staircase, the upstairs mezzanine offers a full bar that is oozing with swank, offering a nostalgic celebration of the era’s mid-century style.
“The point is that we are featuring Jefferson Street African-American soul music from that era, and we want people to be able to come out and dance, and feel the spirit of that time. Where all can come and be served a meal and enjoy some great music,” says Morales.
Morales admits that, while they were influenced by the original menu, they did not necessarily borrow from it. “We decided to make our menu a culinary exploration of Southern cuisine,” he says.
Breakfast is served every morning beginning at 7 a.m., where sweet potato pancakes and jalapeño bacon are the standouts. The fried chicken, known for its moist and crispy perfection, is a lunch and dinner favorite, and is most often enjoyed with stewed greens and creamy mashed potatoes. The corn cakes, crafted with pimento cheese, were reportedly ordered by Oprah Winfrey during her recent lunch visit, and are always in high demand. Although Morales says a few dessert items were inspired by the original menu, like milkshakes and sundaes, they added other Southern staples like peach cobbler, banana pudding and coconut cake squares.
The response to the establishment’s debonair vibe, sparkling decor, mouth-watering menu and titillating offerings of entertainment have been met with roaring applause, but the success has been magnified by TomKat’s commitment to honor Civil Rights history. “We had Robert Kennedy, Jr., John Michael Seigenthaler and Ambassador Andrew Young in to speak as a panel beyond the counter. We had a breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, and the energy was indescribable. There have been some powerful, powerful events that have happened in the space,” says Morales.
Many of the sit-ins have returned for the kinds of visits that swarm everyone in the vicinity with goosebumps — including Rip Patton, Diane Nash and Francis, the lady whose scar from a cigarette burn is still visible on her arm. Lewis proudly joined them via Skype on the day of the restaurant’s opening. “Some of them get teary-eyed walking through it,” says Morales. “Some just smile from ear to ear. It’s amazing to witness that alone.”
Morales says their mission is to bring the heartbeat of the African-American community back to the central part of Nashville — encompassing its history, cuisine and entertainment. “Most importantly, we want to represent a place where people know that everyone is always welcome, and all will be extended absolute hospitality,” he says.
The ultimate dream had by Morales is for Winfrey to return for a visit on the 60th anniversary and interview Lewis right in the spot where he was arrested. “The point is not to appropriate history. We’re trying to save history,” says Morales. “To uncover the truth of what happened, while letting everyone see that — you know, what all those people sat in for all those years ago? What they fought for? Well, it did come true. It finally did.”